The Film Noir Odyssey
Writer: Nunnally Johnson
Based on the novel “Black Widow” by Patrick Quentin
Director: Nunnally Johnson
Cinematographer: Charles G. Clarke
Music: Leigh Harline
Cast: Ginger Rogers, Van Geflin, Gene Tierney, George Raft
Release: October 28, 1954
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Percent Noir: 30%
For the first ten minutes, “Black Widow” fools you into thinking that it’s going to be decent, trashy fun. Not good, mind you, but at least enjoyable. But the more you watch, the more bored you become. And then annoyed. And by the time the third act rolls out two twists you first predicted an hour before, your finger is inching for the remote, wanting to end the suffering. It’s worse than being merely bad (because bad can still be memorable, be interesting, be something) – it’s worthless.
The writer and director is Nunnally Johnson, who penned some very good noir screenplays in the past, including “The Woman in the Window” and “Moontide.” What happened here? He somehow never seemed to ask himself the fundamental question when approaching creating art — why did he want to make this movie? What story did he want to tell?
After his wife Iris (Gene Tierney) leaves town to care for her ill mom, Broadway uber-producer Peter (Van Helfin) meets a wannabe writer named Nancy (Peggy Ann Garner) at a party thrown by his upstairs neighbors Lottie (Ginger Rogers) and Brian (Reginald Gardner). Peter and Nancy strike up what he thinks is a platonic friendship, and he even allows her to write in his apartment during the day when he is at work. But after Peter picks up Iris from the airport, the couple discover Nancy hanging from a noose in their bathroom. A police detective (George Raft) begins investigating and Peter becomes the prime suspect blah blah blah.
You know where this is going. You’ll yawn with boredom when it turns out Nancy was telling everyone that she was having an affair with Peter. Your heart won’t race when Peter escapes the police right before they’re going to arrest him for Nancy’s murder and has to take the investigation into his own hands. You may be asleep by the time the movie reveals that Nancy was having an affair with Brian, and that Lottie killed her in a fit of rage after finding out.
At 95 minutes, the movie feels twice that length. Johnson made the “what the fuck?” decision to shoot the movie in color and Cinemascope, and neither does the film any favors. Maybe he was trying to turn the small, intimate mystery into a major prestige picture, but that was the wrong choice. Worse, he does nothing with all the technology on his hands! We get some pretty city backgrounds to focus on when things happening in the foreground get boring (which is often), but almost every single shot composition seems hindered at being forced to be in widescreen. Peter should feel like his world is closing in on him and, well, it just doesn’t. Because Cinemascope. Characters actually stand abnormally far apart in some shots simply to exploit the widescreen, and set-ups like that take the viewer out of the film.
And then there’s the acting, which is ughhhhhh. Garner is horrendous as Nancy, styled with a bad haircut and apparently unsure of how human beings behave in any given situation. When she has to embrace the black widow aspect of her personality in flashbacks, things get really cringe-y. How is this alleged human being supposed to be attractive to anyone? She even botches the best line of the screenplay, where she describes her writing style: “It’s alright to write like Somerset Maugham and it’s alright to write like Truman Capote, but not at the same time.” How do you screw that up? One can’t help but think of Eve from “All About Eve” – Anne Baxter has never received enough credit for her work there, and to imagine someone like her in this role is to imagine a movie that is still awful, but probably at least watchable.
Perhaps realizing that Garner was going to sink the movie, the rest of the cast decided to phone it in, en masse. Raft is such a non-entity that I kept forgetting he was in the movie, only to think “Hey! That’s George Raft!” every time he appeared to interrogate someone. Tierney’s role could have been performed by a mannequin, and she obviously realizes it. Gardiner was probably hired after George Sanders turned down the role, and speaks as if he has just finished yawning before every line. Heflin seems bored by the entire affair, though he hits his marks adequately. Rogers at least tries to have fun with her diva part for her first scene or two, but by the end can barely muster up enough emotion to seem villainous.
So here I am, 800 words into my article (I usually shoot for 1000 to 1200) and I’ve realized I have nothing more to say about the movie. So I won’t.